The Backcountry Flats have delivered Me some of My most enjoyable days in the Florida Keys

When most people hear you talking about the backcountry flats, they immediately think you’re talking about fishing. Bonefish, Tarpon and Permit aren’t the only creatures on the flats in the backcountry. And fishing isn’t the only fun to be had there either.

I prefer to boat to the backcountry flats a couple of hours before low tide. The lower the tide the better. It’s important to check the tides before you plan your day, you could easily get stuck out there and have to wait until the water comes back in. Sometimes this is after dark. For me the best time for low tide is around noon to two. This allows me plenty of time to walk the flat searching for any treasures that may have been left there by the receding water. I also know that enough water will already be back in when I’m ready to leave at the end of the day.



Channel beside backcountry flats

It’s interesting that some of the backcountry flats have shells on them and others none. It must have something to do with the orientation of the flat to the open Gulf waters. All the good sandy flats have deep channels next to them. Man, the tide sure does rip thru those channels.

In the Lower Keys there’s a very popular sandy backcountry flat that comes way out of the water at low tide. It doesn’t matter if it’s the high low tide, or the low low tide this place always has some sand exposed. Lots of boats gather there to grill out party and just have a great time. I see families, go fast boats, dogs, kids and grandmas out there just to name a few. This place is called Marvin Key. It’s a large piece of sand surrounded by mangroves with plenty of room to explore all around the whole island. The rocks come out of the water on the Gulf side. At a certain point in the tide the waves break over them, that’s a great sound. These rocks have tidal pools where neat shells collect.

Every time I visit the backcountry flats I turn it into a science project. I’ve learned lots from just walking and observing the creatures that live there. For example, did you know that the Tulip Shell eats the Florida Whelk Shell? I had no idea why there were so many perfect Whelk Shells of all sizes laying on the sand with no creature in them. The Tulip shell has cleaned them out for me. The Whelk shell colors vary from dark brown stripes to beautiful orange.

Florida Keys Whelk Shell or Left Handed Whelk Shell

These aren't the only shells found on the flats outback. I find all colors shapes and size shells. I even find Conch Shells conch shells, not the Queen Conch, she only lives out front. I find Milk Conch, Fighting Conch and the Rooster Tail Conch.

There’s one particular backcountry flat that I call my own. I’ve been going there for 19 years. More than 99% of the time I’m the only one there. Now I’ve walked this place for all those years. I’ll walk for hours picking up shells and other interesting treasures. About four years ago I found this very fragile tube shaped object made of sand. You can see the layers where this creature constructed it to live in. It took me a little while to decide just what had lived in it. I believe it’s the home of a Tube Dwelling Anemone. I see them in the sand on the backcountry flats when they’re opened up feeding. Their color is a deep wine red. I thought it interesting that I had never found one of these before. After finding that one I’ve found lots more. One day I found 13 while walking another sandy flat. How did I miss seeing them all those years?



Tube Dwelling Anenome Shell

There’s another backcountry flat that doesn’t come out of the water as much unless it’s an extremely low tide. This one is really enjoyable because I snorkel to get the shells. It’s great exercise as well. It’s interesting how large the shells look. When you get them home to clean, you’ll think how the heck did I even see that little thing. When the tides running really strong, I’ll swim a long way up in front of the boat. When I decide it’s time to go back to the boat the current takes me with no effort on my part. It’s a great ride.

Sting rays, sharks , barracudas, tarpon , Redfish and bonefish all visit these same flats looking for food. The sting ray’s settle to the bottom and filter feed on the small crab and mollusks that live under the sand. You can spot them feeding a long way off by the stirred up sand in the water. This leaves depressions in the sand which collect shells as the tide goes in and out. Sometimes when the tide is out you can see the shadow print of the sting ray where he was feeding. Even the tail leaves a print in the sand.


I think the coolest thing I ever saw while on the backcountry flats was three Longtooth Sawfish. I did not have a camera, but I did have a witness. Everyone needs proof, they just don’t believe the things I see out there. These fish were huge. They stayed near the boat feeding in the grassy part of the flat for at least 20 minutes. One of them even swam under the anchor line. I would guess they were easy 10 feet long each. It was great to watch them swing their heads with that big saw blade sticking out, back and forth in the water.

Up until this time I knew nothing about them. I thought they were deep water fish. I had no idea they were in the backcountry on the flats. I found out their habitat was shallow water, and they also like to feed in bays. That’s the only time I’ve ever saw them out back.

Over the years the backcountry flats have introduced me to lots of interesting creatures and their way of feeding. Next time you’re in the Florida Keys you just might consider getting someone to take you out to one of these wonderful magic sandy flats.



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